Intent vs. Consequences: A Middle-Ground Model

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

There’s always a topic going around social media feeds that cannot be divorced from perpetual flame wars and arguments in the comments. At the time of writing this, the flame war flavor of the month is Ellen’s recent tweet of the Olympics, where she put out a humorous photo of her riding on the shoulders of Olympic athlete Usain Bolt, with the caption, “This is how I’m running errands from now on.” I don’t care to get into the specifics of the debate, but I will attempt to summarize in a fair way. The negative reactions stem from people who bring up America’s racist past of treating black slaves as literal beasts of burden, such that even on occasion slaves were forced to literally carry masters on their backs. The pushback to this insists that there is no foul, since Ellen is clearly a strong social liberal with a history of promoting equality, and Usain Bolt clearly found no problem with the post since he retweeted the photo.

I don’t feel qualified to discuss whether or not this was racist, but this argument has dredged up the debate over whether intent matters or not. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to grant two things, each one conceding an important point to each side of the debate:

  1. Ellen genuinely meant no harm or malice to either Bolt or the black community. We have little evidence of bad intent, and we can’t read her mind.
  2. By posting the tweet, she subtly reinforced a harmful narrative that still exists within a deeply racist America that degrading physical labor is a suitable role for colored people.

I’ve seen people on either side of the issue concede both these points. Not everyone, mind you. However, from what I can tell, people seem to think that one is a far more important focus than the other. If we both concede these points, then we agree on two relevant things: that Ellen did not intend for there to be harm, but there was harm anyway.

The struggle appears to be with how we set up our moral model. Most secular humanists subscribe to a consequential ethics model. We characterize something as good when it promotes well-being or reduces harm. It is immoral if it causes someone harm. So, clearly, we value it when someone’s actions improve the lives of others. However, if we are going to promote actions that improve the lives of others, shouldn’t we incentivize that people perform actions in the future that they think will also benefit others? If someone thinks an act improves the well-being of someone else, and they are justified in that belief, shouldn’t we encourage them to follow through?


[Image: a fucking adorable sad kitten with the words “I didn’t mean it”]

Part of the struggle appears to be that we don’t want to punish someone for not having malicious intent. After all, accidents happen all the time, and humans are far from perfect. Why would we treat someone poorly for causing something they didn’t intend to happen? However, we do recognize that we have to own up to our harms regardless of what we meant. This is the main point of the “intent is not magic” side, of which I generally consider myself a part of. A classic example is one that Ania Bula discusses in her take on the issue. Her example is that of stepping on someone else’s toe. Most toe-steppings are unintentional, yet we would seem like a dickhole if we did it to someone without apologizing and trying to rectify the situation.

I think this is a perfectly good analogy, yet it might seem less analogous if we are talking about non-physical harm. In this case, Ellen reinforced roles of humiliating labor that black people are apparently fit to perform. There is an extra layer of abstraction from mere physical harm, since Ellen had the medium of culture to spread the message of the meme and for it to make its impact on other humans. Yet that harm still exists. Even if Ellen didn’t purposefully try to reinforce those race-based roles, she did. If she actually cares about making sure that harm isn’t further perpetuated, then shouldn’t she apologize and try and rectify it. We don’t even have to think she had malicious intent against black people to spread racism, as a lot of racism is unconscious and unintentional. Does it make sense that racists are intentionally trying to screw over an entire group of people, or does it make sense that they think they have verifiable facts and reasons for treating people of different races worse? My mind’s on the latter.

We have an analogous state to racism that also unintentionally causes harm: ignorance. While racism and ignorance are hardly exclusive to each other (the latter undoubtedly perpetuates the former), we can look at them separately and find they have similar consequences. Ignorance causes children to not get vaccinated or understand evolution properly. It causes people to spend money on homeopathy. It causes policies to allow humans to dump carbon into the atmosphere and increase the temperature of the Earth. But would we call the people who do these things immoral? Only if they’re not ignorant and willingly causing these harms in spite of the evidence.

As skeptics, we have a lot to say about ignorance. We don’t think it’s immoral, and in fact we find it’s usually the product of our environment which we have varying degrees of control over. If someone is uninformed on an issue and says something completely wrong, we don’t jump to the conclusion that they are automatically a terrible person (or at least we shouldn’t). Rather, we try to inform them or give them resources to improve their situation. If the person appreciates the gesture and reacts in a way that seems like they acknowledge that they were uninformed, then we even value their behavior. We even give them brownie points for doing the research and informing themselves afterward. However, it’s only willful ignorance, where they double down and refuse to acknowledge any points you give that we label their actions as harmful. They are purposefully wanting to disregard any contradictory info, which will lead to harm down the road, which is immoral.

It is here that I suggest the middle ground between people who think that we need to focus on one or the other in terms of harm. We don’t think ignorance is the mark of a bad person, it can easily be the mark of poor circumstances. However, we recognize that it does harm. For that reason, the ignorance is bad, but the person is not, unless they are consciously promoting that ignorance.

Under this proposed model, the intent and the consequences are both important, but for different reasons. Intent is important for assessing the moral character of the person. Did they want to be ignorant, racist, or malicious? No? Then they aren’t a person of questionable character, at least not based on this interaction. However, the damage is still there. This is why the consequences are so important, as they’re important for assessing the nature of the behavior. If the person is a person with strong morals, then they should want to rectify that harm, or at least acknowledge that harm was performed. If they seem to put the focus on their intent instead of the harm, as Ellen disappointingly seemed to do, then we are less likely to trust that they actually care about doing their best.

Perhaps this rubs the humanists who rely on consequential ethics the wrong way. If we judge actions on the consequences they cause, isn’t this rejecting consequential ethics? This is currently the best model that atheists have for a moral system, and it relies on our ever-useful skepticism that follows evidence-based methodology.

I’d argue that it’s not a rejection, seeing as a person could conceivably think that they are informed and think they are performing an action that causes the best possible outcome and still fail. If a person is acting on their best evidence and their evidence is flawed, can we really hold that against them? I don’t think we should. However, we should still expect that if they care about the consequences of their actions, that even if they weren’t fully informed in a particular situation, they were an active agent and a component of the harm that was perpetuated.

Furthermore, holding people somewhat accountable to the harms they’ve unintentionally caused is actually rooted in consequential ethics. If we don’t want someone to make the same mistake twice, we need to call them out on their actions and point out the damage they have caused. For rational and ethical people, this causes them to be more aware in similar situations in the future and act accordingly. If we care about the consequences of someone’s actions then we should make sure those consequences are the best they can be, which includes raising flags when someone trips up. This is how we already behave in multiple areas of life, such as setting interpersonal boundaries or bringing up specific needs that someone has. If I share some brownies with my coworkers and someone is allergic to one of the ingredients, nobody should call me an immoral person for bringing the dessert to work. I would feel an obligation to apologize for bringing something to work that they were specifically singled out from enjoying.

For that reason, we should keep in mind that a statement telling someone that they have done harm is not an accusation of immorality. I think this is where the people who value intent over consequences get it entirely wrong. When someone is accused of hurting someone else, it could very easily mean that they have made a mistake, not that they are a bad person. Similarly, I have been ignorant on a good many things, but that doesn’t mean someone should call me stupid or immoral.

This ties into racism as well. I recognize that as a white person raised in a predominantly white environment for most of my life that I almost certainly have unconscious biases that lead me to act in a way that treats non-whites as inferior. I am more likely to support policies that marginalize blacks, even though that is not my intention. As a result of my biases, I recognize that I am probably racist to an extent. This is not a malicious indictment of people who don’t look like me, but rather an unfortunate consequence of being human. It is for this reason that we as a culture shouldn’t be defensive so much when we are accused of perpetuating racism or being racist. In this light, it’s less of an attack on character and simply something we should both recognize and try to consciously counteract.

Ultimately, I don’t think either “side” is working from completely different sets of assumptions, but rather their focus. To me, both intent and consequences are important, but for different reasons. For assessing the moral character of the person, we are allowed to assess their intentions. This helps us realize that even if they hurt someone we can still value them as an individual and the good things they continue to bring to the table. But the consequences still mean we need to hold people accountable for their actions. It’s very similar to the common skeptical ideal of criticizing ideas and not people, but rather in this case we are criticizing actions. As skeptics, we know we make mistakes, and being criticized doesn’t usually feel good, but if we care about improving ourselves and the world around us we will need to constantly improve. Accepting criticism is a must. Therefore, get on the defensive less and change your behaviors that are harmful. And if your intentions are sincerely good-natured, then you should be able to recognize that harm and have better actions in the future.


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